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Classification Virtual Season 2005 Episode 4; Romance (H/M, Mattie/Other)
 
Length Approximately 20,000 words; 51 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
 
Spoilers All ten seasons plus the first three episodes of the 2005 JAG VS.
Rating GS
Author's Notes The last JAG VS... I'm not a melancholy kind of person but this does feel weird. In the past two years, the VS has always been a great summer project to look forward to, knowing that once the last ep would be up, the long-awaited new season was about to start. This time, there will be no new season. This is a concept that needs a little getting used to. So I'm all the more glad I could join the VS team again for this final season, and as always, my thanks go to all my fellow authors for their time and dedication, as well as to Bree for the great site and to Cath and Steph for their admirable graphic art. It was great working with you guys! Next year, I'm definitely going to feel the loss.
 
  Concerning the story: This is mainly a Mattie story. Those of you who are Mattie haters, forgive me – but I've liked her character from the start. Last year, I focused on Chloe, so...

Also, the NEXUS program does indeed exist. It's a joint research initiative in medical anthropology, followed by the universities of both St Andrews and Dundee in Scotland. I never found out why it's called NEXUS, though. Also, the tasks I made up are entirely fictional. For those who are interested in learning more:  http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~nexus

I'm aware that on the show, Mattie's accident happened when her plane was already back on the ground, but for my story, let's just pretend it was a real landing crash, okay? Thank you for granting me a little artistic license.

And three cheers to all Jack-London fans out there!
 
Summary During her junior year abroad, two friends will help Mattie to finally fight the demons of her recent past – leading to an overwhelming surprise for Harm...

 

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

Flashback
February 2005
Approaching the airfield
Blacksburg, Virginia

 

"We're losing altitude too fast!"

"I know, girl! I can’t keep her steady with those crosswind gusts, and this damn snow is too dense!"

"Is there any way we'll get down in one piece?"

"Hang on, I've handled harder situations than this one! Just don't freak out, okay?"

"Watch out for those trees!"

"Shut up, I see them!"

"We’ll never clear them at this altitude—aaaaaaaahhhhh!”

 

September 24, 2009
0328 Local
Old town
St Andrews, Scotland

 

Panting, Mattie sat straight in her bed, her heart beating wildly. Beads of perspiration had formed on her forehead, and she tried frantically to get her surroundings into focus to some degree.

The first seconds were always the worst – the state between sleeping and being awake when you couldn't yet force yourself to think of something else. When the fear felt like a rope around your neck, tightening constantly, yielding just enough so you wouldn't suffocate, but still feel the whole pain of it.

The top left corner of her cupboard registered in her brain. The windowsill. The desk and the lone cactus on it. Harm's model Stearman.

Slower than usual, the visual puzzle pieces fell into place. Quite a natural thing when you hadn't lived in your room for more than ten days.

Finally, the figurative rope around Mattie's neck gave way enough for her to lie down again and try to go back to sleep. At least she didn't need to fear that this dream would come true – it already had. But the knowledge of the statistical improbability of the same tragedy happening twice did little to help her sleep any easier. She might just be the exception to the rule.



******************
OPENING CREDITS
******************


November 7, 2009
1624 Local
Mattie's shared house
Old town
St. Andrews, Scotland

 

"What exactly did you say this was supposed to be?" Mattie suspiciously waved her right hand over the cup she was handed and cautiously sniffed the exotic aroma.

"If I told you, I would betray 469 years of family tradition." With a smug grin, Harilal Kamath exercised a perfect mock bow to Mattie and then sat down across from her. "Let's just say the tea leaves are from controlled Himalayan cultivation at about 1800 meters altitude, picked strictly according to the Ayurveda rules my grandfather taught me. And it's supposed to ease the back pains you're always complaining about."

"Come on, Hal, what's in this stuff? I just don't want to risk trying dope or anything." Mattie knew her grin belied her implication.

"I told you: secret Indian medicine. Drink it and feel better."

Arching her eyebrows, Mattie blew on the hot liquid and sipped, her eyes never leaving her fellow student, who innocently smiled. An enchanting mixture of herbal aromas that she would vaguely have placed somewhere in between basil and jasmine, tinged with a hint of orange, registered in her olfactory memory. Pleasantly surprised, she gave him an acknowledging nod. "Well, at least it doesn't kill immediately."

"See? Now drink it regularly and I promise that when you return to the States you won't remember how to spell 'back pains' anymore."

"What am I gonna get if I still can?"

"Spoilsport. I tell you you'll..."

"Is he threatening you again, Matt?" Suppressed laughter ringing in his voice, Robert Brendan dropped his bag on the chair beside him and folded his lanky frame enough to join his two friends at the kitchen table.

Mattie's eyes left her Indian housemate's and focused on the new arrival who completed their student-household trio. "Don't worry. After last week's lesson he wouldn't dare."

"Hey, all I did was try to acquaint you with my Aunt Deepa's special curried saag!" Hal defended himself. "There's no way I could've known you two are such..."

"Just don't," Robert cut him off with an easy smile. "We're just poor weak Westerners and our taste buds can only take that much. Remember Jill last term when she..."

"Jill wasn't even worth the curry I put into it, and you, of all people, should know it, Rob."

Robert frowned. "I know, you're right. Anyway, her reaction was drastic enough and she always claimed she liked spicy food."

"I thought she was a loser," Mattie interjected, blowing on her hot tea. "Or did I get that wrong?"

"You didn't," Hal acknowledged. "But Rob needed eight months to find out what everyone else knew from the start."

"I thought it took you eight months to find out she was cheating on you?" Mattie asked boldly, eyeing her friend with arched eyebrows.

Robert poured himself a cup of Hal's tea, eliciting an appreciative grin from his Indian friend, and sighed just a little exasperatedly. "Heck, I was in love! I couldn't think straight. That’s never happened to you guys?"

"Never," Hal stated categorically, shaking his head in theatrical determination. "My love is called Apple G4, and she can stand straight thinking only."

Mattie saw Robert's eyes first roll heavenward and then turn to her. Sipping her tea, she pondered what she might answer. Actually, it really hadn't happened to her personally, either, but thinking of her parents, she had a pretty good idea what her friend was talking about. She cleared her throat. "Sorry to disappoint you, Rob, but that's never happened to me, either. However..." She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I could tell you stories about reasonable people... you'd never believe me. So I kind of know what you mean."

"Who might that be?"

"My parents."

"The biological ones?"

"Nope, my new ones. They needed years to clear their heads and come to their senses. And that's all I'm gonna say about that."

"But what's that got to do with my curried saag?" Hal comically complained, returning to the previous topic. "So Jill couldn't eat it. Big deal. Actually I expected that much. But you guys, with your Arizonian roots, you should have the spice gene somewhere, right?"

Robert lifted one hand to silence his friend. "Easy. I'm only halfway Arizonian. My father's a deadly normal Englishman. So I don't count."

"And I don't, either," Mattie chimed in. "You're right: my mom's from Arizona, her grandma's Iranian, and she's got Cherokee ancestors, but I've never heard of genes being passed on through adoption. So, never ever call me spice girl again, understood?"

Hal heaved another theatrical sigh and demonstratively rubbed his chin. "I think I could just bring myself to remember that."

"Good."

"Shelve the battle for later, guys," Robert said. "Anyone copy the exact reading list for next Monday's Linguistic Approaches?"

"I was hoping you did," Mattie answered, finishing her tea with what she hoped was a reprimanding expression. "I never get round to writing down all he says because of the chick division in front of me."

"What was it today?" Hal asked with the broadest of malicious grins. "Extreme-manicuring, power-shopping, or just marathon-telephoning? We should all be ashamed we're not half as athletic as they are."

"No idea what the topic was. I'm sure it was something stupid of the kind, but I really wouldn't know. The only times they ever address me is to get my Statistics assignments."

"Which you always let them have."

Mattie gave them a helpless shrug. "Hey, what am I supposed to do? I guess I've developed kind of a Samaritan soft spot. Ever since my accident I can't refuse helping someone who asks. Imagine where I'd be if my parents hadn't helped me out of that mess back then."

"Is that why you're so keen on participating in the NEXUS program next time they let new students join? To appease your helper’s syndrome?"

Hal had said it grinning, clearly just wanting to tease her a little, but Mattie still felt a sting at his words. All that her friends knew about her past was that she had had an accident at 16 and had needed quite a bit of training to get in shape again, that she had been adopted by two military officers at about the same age, and that she preferred not to talk about the past.

Not that she was ashamed of having been severely handicapped for some time. But she wanted to avoid what had happened too often already during her first two years at the University of Richmond: the moment someone heard about her past, the way they looked at her would change. To either distanced pity ("Poor girl, who knows if she's really managed to fully come back to her normal self.") or distanced admiration ("Wow, look at that one, how did she do that? I could never be half as brave and tenacious as her.") – either way the result had been that real close friends had been very rare, just because people didn't know how to handle her medical history. If no one knew what she'd been through, they'd just take her as she was: Mathilda Grace Rabb, studying sociology in Richmond and passing her junior year as an exchange student in Scotland to get an outside view – the perfectly normal 20-year-old girl-next-door.

Recently, this explanation had become something Mattie clung to more firmly than she would have liked. It helped her push away another, more unsettling truth: the further Mattie had moved on, creating an independent life after her long period of disability, reaching next to normal circumstances that she wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago, the more her subsequent mental relaxation had begun to open the doors to the psychological aftermath of the whole affair. Held at bay through her long, stressful rehab and the search for her new self, now the memories of the actual accident were really starting to haunt her, and Mattie hadn't yet dared try to figure out how to handle them. Instead, she kept convincing herself she didn't tell her story to anyone so as to not alter people's perception of her.

Still, sometimes, in conversations as these, she wished she could ignore the fear and break with her need-to-know policy – to let her friends in on her story: how she had all but given up on herself. Just how painful rehab had been; how she had nearly lost it more times than she could count. It had been Harm's and Mac's constant active help that had made her pull through. Without knowing those facts her friends simply couldn't understand her constant need to help. Wasn't it natural she should feel the urge to pass on what she had received herself? To assist when a possibility presented itself – even if her constant readiness indeed resembled a helper's syndrome?

And what better way than to do it through the NEXUS? A joint research program in medical anthropology that focused on improving children's and young people's chances of overcoming problems in connection not only with chronic illness, but also with lifestyles, identity, or race. Ever since Mattie had learned about St Andrews' participation in the program, she had decided she'd spend her junior year as a volunteer with the program, sharing what had been so difficult for her to endure. As an undergraduate, she knew she couldn't officially partake in the research, but opportunities to do interviews and work with the graduates and the PhD candidates always presented themselves.

At the same time, NEXUS was a great opportunity to already gain firsthand practical experience working with people in the field Mattie wanted to specialize in later on in law school: social and family law. Somehow, her own life had made her a double expert in that. So, getting good out of the bad, she felt she was predestined for Robin-Hood-ish lawyering. Add Harm and Mac coaching her on the arguing part... However, Mattie was still reluctant to let anyone in on her very personal motives for choosing her career path.

She hadn't found many close friends yet, but Mattie attributed that more to her being picky about them and not caring if she behaved like most of her fellow students might expect of her or not. Usually, she only hung out with male students. Mattie was far too down-to-earth and unpretentious to share some of her female classmates' passion for fashion and chasing potential boyfriends.

This year, her natural tendency to become buddies with male students more easily than with girls was aggravated by an additional fact: Mattie shared a house with Robert Brendan, the dark-haired, green-eyed, tall, sportive prince charming of the junior class. And what was more: he seemed to enjoy being friends with her when he normally reacted rather reservedly to most attempts at conquering him. Not exactly a constellation to create many sympathies for the girl from across the pond.

Initially, Mattie had been disappointed that she hadn't found accommodation in a student dorm. She had hoped the closer contact with her fellow students would have made it easier to find the kind of friends she was looking for. But when she had come across advertisements for flat and house sharing, she had immediately made a few presentation appointments, flown over for spring break and driven up to Scotland with Harm who had insisted on seeing for himself where she'd live – and with whom.

Rob's and Hal's slightly chaotic but cozy brick house in picturesque old-town St Andrews had been their second place to see, and Mattie had immediately decided this was it. It wasn't so much the house, though, that had made her choose so quickly. Like so many old houses, theirs was a rather small, slice-type of building in a long row of similar ones, with only one room on each floor, making sports superfluous by the sheer amount of stairs you had to climb each day. Pragmatic as always, Mattie had booked this disadvantage on her 'after-rehab' account.

What weighed far heavier on the pro side of Mattie's decision were the house's inhabitants. Not only were both of them doing their junior year in Social Anthropology, just like herself, what might come in extremely handy when the exams drew near. Mattie had taken an immediate liking to the hectic, short, skinny Indian computer-freak from Birmingham who was doing a double degree, combined with Informatics, as if there was nothing to it, and to his best friend who was as unlike Hal as he possibly could be.

Rob's open smile and welcoming attitude, combined with his exterior, had instantly conjured up pictures in Mattie's mind of what Midshipman Harmon Rabb, Jr. might have been like, back in Annapolis. This thought alone had sufficed to make her feel at home. Learning that Rob was planning on attending law school in the States after finishing his degree only added to the similarities. Harm's initial reservations about seeing her share a house with two young men had lessened a little over a gorgeous homemade Indian dinner with ample and open conversation about everything a worried father might want to know about his daughter's future whereabouts.

In the end, Mac had taken care of the rest: she had, point blank, told her husband that a) he didn't have to project his own history with women onto every young man in the country, that b) Mattie was of age, old and mature enough to judge for herself and headstrong enough to do it, and that c) he should be quiet and glad that Mattie had let him have a say in the affair and a look at her future housemates in the first place. Upon that, Harm had looked so lost in the face of double female power that Mattie had engulfed him in a big bear hug, telling him not to worry. She remembered distinctly hearing him mumble something along the lines of "getting old."

Getting to know her new friends a little better once she had moved in, Mattie had found Rob a lot more serious, though, than she suspected young Harm had ever been. Although Rob often let people see his smile and had the amazing ability to somehow always be in good humor, it had taken almost three weeks until Mattie had really seen him laugh. And he definitely didn't have Harm's women-killer qualities Mac had told her about over a cup of girls-talk coffee.

Instead, Rob tended to show a surprising amount of shyness when someone sought personal contact. More than once, Mattie had found it difficult to swallow her giggles at seeing Rob turn into a very stiff, old-fashioned British gentleman when faced with some flirting course mate. It was only with close friends like Hal that Rob let show his relaxed, sunny Arizonian side he had inherited from his American mother. Sharing a house with him and Hal had immediately included Mattie in the small circle of those knowing the private guy behind the friendly reserve.

Although Mattie had been living with them for a mere eight weeks, the trio had become next to inseparable, Hal repeating over and over again that he indeed liked having a female buddy around that he felt so totally comfortable with, after last term's ordeal of seeing Rob lose time with some undeserving girlfriend. In short: Mattie felt she was incredibly lucky with her present situation that already began to resemble more a surrogate family than anything else.

And yet – neither Hal nor Rob knew about her past. Mattie felt so blissfully normal and comfortable with them that she kept pushing away the moment of acquainting them with her past and the demons that hadn't been dealt with yet. 'As long as there aren't any small planes around, there's no need to tell them about my fear of getting on them,' she kept telling herself, knowing well she was only putting off the decision, not facing it.

Until now, Mattie had managed to let it all pass with a simple 'caused by an accident I had when I was 16.' However, this indistinct, harmless picture was getting more difficult to maintain each time. So Mattie now tried to parry Hal's innocent question with an equally innocent answer. "Yeah, I'm probably feeding my helper's complex with the NEXUS," she admitted, seemingly easy. "Everyone is entitled to some sort of complex, right?"

"Does your helper's complex also force you to let me have your reading list for Linguistic Approaches?" Rob asked with a nonchalant grin, although Mattie suspected he saw her answer for what it was. Sometimes Rob could be damned perceptive.

"I told you it's not complete," she replied.

"Not complete is definitely more than I've got."

"Take mine," Hal offered. "I haven't had to fight psycho wars with a group of girlie-girls, or get some of the night's lost sleep in class."

"Shut up and tell me where I can find the list," Rob cut him off with a smile that would have been just a little arrogant, had the mock undercurrent not been so obvious.

"Middle pocket of my bag, blue folder."

"Thanks." Rob got up, reached for Hal's bag and began to rummage through it. Suddenly he stopped and slowly pulled out a small light-blue flyer. "Hey, what's this?"

"What's what?" Hal asked.

Rob held out the flyer to him. "I found this in your bag. This could be fun."

Hal recognized what Rob was handing him and shook his head. "If we had that kind of money sitting around, maybe, but I don't think we do."

Mattie deliberately frowned. "Uhm, guys, could you tell me what you're talking about?"

"Sorry, Matt, sure." The flyer still in his hand, Rob sat down beside her and put it on the table in front of her. Mattie took a look – and couldn't refrain from sucking in her breath.

The flyer read, "Free your mind from earthly problems... discover the third dimension." Underneath, the picture of an old bi-plane elaborated what the title wanted to insinuate. And under the picture, Ian's Flight School invited St Andrews students to try out flying at Ben Craig airfield, north of Dundee. With the help of a generous St-Andrews alumnus, the owners were able to offer special students rates, for learning as well as for rental.

A wave of emotions washed over her. Horror, as the last moments before the accident came to mind; pain, as the recollection of the yearlong aftermath followed instantly; panic, at the thought of ever sitting in such a narrow cockpit again, without the reassuring presence of a commercial airliner's emergency systems, and yet, longing and sadness, as she once again realized that for now, flying was out of reach – as long as she didn't face the fear. It always threatened to strangle her whenever she pictured herself strapped in her seat and gliding high above the scenery – be it the Appalachians or the Scottish Highlands.

"You all right, Matt?" Mattie felt a hand on her shoulder and shook herself from her momentary stasis. Rob was looking at her, clearly concerned.

"Want some more tea?" Hal asked, obviously puzzled.

Judging from her friends' expressions, the color had either drained from her face, or she had to be glowing with too much adrenaline. "No, thanks, it's nothing. Don't worry. Just, ah, the blood pressure," she stammered, yelling at herself to be a more professional liar.

Rob only kept looking at her but never said anything. It was evident he didn't believe her.

"Why don't you lie down a little until you feel better?" Hal suggested.

Mattie gave them a slightly uneasy smile. "It's okay, really. I guess I might like some more of your Ayurveda stuff, though," she addressed Hal. "If you've got anything beneficial for people with low blood-pressure."

Hal bowed gallantly. "Of course, ma'am. Just a second." Grinning, he busied himself with the tealeaves.

Turning her head, Mattie saw Rob searching his bag for something. A moment later, he looked up at them, his smile secretive. "I hereby declare the flying season for open," he then declared pompously.

"What?" Mattie blurted out before Rob had the chance to say anything further. Angry, she noted that distinct panic was palpable in her voice. She immediately tried to mask it with feigned annoyance. "Come on, we're trying to be serious here. Shelve that rubbish for someone else."

"Hey, excuse me," Rob answered, clearly confused and apparently a little vexed. "All I was about to do was suggest we go flying someday. As you've got a pilot at hand." With this, he held out what he had found in his bag.

"You've got a pilot's license?" On Hal's astonished features, a huge question mark and a huge exclamation mark were warring. "Man, two years, and you never said a thing! Not even when Matt's dad was first here with her and he mentioned he was an aviator! Care to explain that to me?"

If she hadn't been so dazed with fear, Mattie would have teased Rob about the fact that he was actually blushing.

"Okay, so I've got a pilot's license. Others got horses or yachts," Rob answered, defensive and clearly a little uneasy. "My dad's got his private plane at an airfield near London, so I learned. But once you tell someone you fly, they'll immediately take you for some rich snob. That's why I didn't tell you at first, Hal, and then I somehow got the impression you weren't too interested in those kinds of things anyway. And Captain Rabb might have taken me for the macho kind of guy. You know how things are: you're most prejudiced against your own kind. Although I don't think the captain's like that himself, you know what reputation a lot of pilots have. So I assumed I'd better not let him know I flew, if we wanted Mattie to stay with us." He seemed to make a point about not meeting her glance, and right now Mattie was glad about it.

"Assumptions, assumptions!" Hal exclaimed comically. "Did you also assume that Jill wouldn't care about flying with you? Or why is it the topic never came up last year?"

"When I told her, she only said that nothing in the world could ever make her get on a small plane, so I left it be." Rob fatalistically shrugged. "And then, there wasn't any good place around for renting a plane, too. Glen Burrow is too far away, and McCullough's really is for the rich only. Just look at the rates. But this new place with its student discounts sounds great."

"Okay!" Hal was all enthusiasm. "Maybe we can even do a tour before the winter still! Wow, this is madness. What about you, Matt? Isn't this too cool to be true?"

Mattie didn't know how to react. In an instant, her safe home had turned into a place where she had to face the enemy head-on. No longer could she pretend to shut the door and leave her fears outside. And the moment she saw her friends' attention now focus on her, suddenly seeing she didn't respond the way they expected her to, her fear of having to board a small aircraft was joined by another that paralyzed her completely: the fear of seeing her friends' appreciation of her lessen if she owned she was such a coward. That she was a loser herself; that she couldn't seem to get a grip.

"What the hell is the matter with you, Matt?" Rob sounded genuinely worried. "I've never seen you like this before. You sure you don't need a doctor, maybe?"

This triggered her fury. "Of course I don't! Would you stop sounding like my dad, for God's sake?" The moment the words were out, Mattie felt her conscience give her a hard time. She had yelled at Rob, and she had indirectly insulted Harm. Neither of the two merited to be treated this way.

Rob's eyes had widened slightly in shock but he remained silent. Hal didn't, though. "Hey! He was just trying to be supportive!"

Mattie exhaled forcefully, trying to calm down to some degree. "I know, I'm sorry, but I just can't stand it if everyone constantly thinks I can't cope!" She hated herself for getting so irritable, but by now this was a pattern of reaction she couldn't easily fight.

"Would you care to tell us what this scene is all about?" Hal sounded unnerved. "Don't tell me you're just as bitchy as most other girls after all."

Mattie glared at him. "Screw your stereotypes! And just so you know, there's nothing to tell."

"Yes, there is." Rob's voice had been very calm, seeming to cool the air by at least ten degrees. His gaze was more inquisitive than accusing, making Mattie feel more uneasy still. "You don't need to apologize, but I prefer knowing exactly who my housemates are."

Mattie felt her shoulders drop as she leaned back, resigned. Her cheeks were starting to burn, and she swallowed her pride. To hell with it.

"I'm sorry I freaked out, but I tend to react that way whenever a situation like this comes up. It's... got to do with my accident. It was a flying accident."

Hal's eyes went round and he sat thunderstruck, but if Rob was surprised, he didn't let it on. "What happened?" was all he asked.

Drawing a deep breath, Mattie braced herself and let her friends in on her story. "My dad's got a plane of his own, too. An antique Stearman he restored by himself, a real treasure. Anyway, he started teaching me to fly, and I even started thinking about becoming a naval aviator like him. So I began taking regular flying lessons with a local instructor.

"One day, they had predicted snow but I insisted on taking my lesson because the sky looked fine to me.”

“Don’t tell me your instructor took you up with a forecast like that,” Rob interrupted, sounding incredulous.

The interruption unnerved her because Mattie felt she wanted to get it over with. “Yes, he did,” she answered, her words coming out a little hurriedly. “He probably knew he shouldn’t have, and I know I shouldn’t have asked, but I guess he needed the money. Anyway,” she took up her tale again before Rob could say anything else, “the weather changed quickly when we were about to land. We tried..."

She halted, swallowing. "I mean... my instructor... when we were coming in, he..." Again, she broke off, trying to get a grip on her panic that threatened to suffocate her. Trying to continue, she forced the words out. "The snow was too dense, and then there were those crosswinds..." Yet again, she had to stop, feeling a major lump in her throat. "I can't..." she only choked out, resting her face in her hands and concentrating on her breathing.

"You never said a word, either," was all Hal remarked in a compassionate voice, not quite seeming to know how to react.

"Because I wanted to be just like everyone else," Mattie whispered, never looking up. "And because... I just couldn't."

The kitchen was silent for quite some time. Eventually, Mattie felt someone pat her shoulder and looked up. Rob was giving her a slight smile. "I guess we get the picture. Just leave it be." He sobered. "But you do know that someday, you ought to talk about it, right?"

Mattie sighed and pulled herself up. "I know. The strange thing is that at first talking about it was never a problem. I don't know what caused it, but at a certain point the panic attacks started getting worse each time, and for over a year now, I can't even think about it without feeling like I can't breathe."

"Your instructor – is he all right?" Hal asked, intimidated.

Mattie stared in front of herself. "He didn't make it. I was in a coma for weeks, and I suffered a spinal injury." She heard how monotone her voice sounded but she couldn't force herself to break the emotional distance she'd built up. "For months, I was paralyzed from the neck down, and it took me years to recover. My neurologist says it's a miracle in itself that I did. I've never been on a small plane since."

Again, silence reigned for a few long moments, everyone following their own thoughts, but despite the situation, Mattie noted she was beginning to feel strangely light at heart, knowing that at least the lie was dead.

"Well," Hal began, a careful smile tingeing his voice, "I've never heard of an anti-panic Ayurveda treatment, but I might just get to be a pioneer in the field... anyone care for some tea?"

Surprised at the unexpected, clumsy, but somehow cute attempt at humor, Mattie turned her head to look at her friends. Hal's gaze read, 'Hey, I think that was funny, don't you?', and Rob's eyes conveyed understanding without judgment. Both combined, the message was clear:

They knew, and nothing had changed in the way they looked at her. Mattie felt her eyes getting slightly misty and a new lump growing in her throat. Without saying anything, she just extended her hands, firmly squeezing both her friends' forearms in a gesture of gratitude. Also for the first time ever, she didn't give a damn that her smile was watery.

 

 

Part 1 Part 2
 
 
   

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